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Belgian Refugees of World War I: When 600,000 Belgians Left their Homeland to Seek Asylum

At the beginning of the Great War and subsequent German Invasion, thousands of Belgians fled the country to seek asylum in Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The total number of Belgians who fled the country during the First World War was around 600,000 or some eight percent of the total population at that time.

Ceasefire and returning to Belgium

A ceasefire in November 1918 gave some hope to the refugees who were waiting anxiously to return to their motherland after years of absence. By the end of 1919, most Belgian refugees who had taken temporary asylum in the Netherlands had returned home. While a few decided to stay there permanently. The British government also took measures to repatriate the refugees. By mid-1919, almost all Belgians who had resided in Britain had left the country. France, bled dry by four years of the war, did not view the repatriation of Belgian refugees as a pressing issue. A few thousand decided to stay in France, especially in Normandy, where many were granted fertile farmland. When the war was ended almost 95% of the refugees returned to their country.

Refugees faced hostility and unfriendliness

After the war, many refugees were treated like aliens or even hostility. People called them cowards because they left the country. Their contribution to the war effort was judged marginal at best. Many considered them privileged people or deserters who had failed to demonstrate sufficient courage in the face of the enemy. There was no place for refugees in the Belgian memory of the war. As a result, Belgian historians and citizens rapidly forgot the refugees’ war experience.

Here below are some historical photos that depict the life of Belgian refugees during World War I.

#1 Belgian refugees arrive in the Netherlands, 1914.

Belgian refugees arrive in the Netherlands, 1914.

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#2 Belgian refugees carry their belongings ahead of invading troops through Northern France, 1914.

Belgian refugees carry their belongings ahead of invading troops through Northern France, 1914.

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#3 Belgian refugees on the harbour at Ostend waiting for a boat to take them to England, 1914.

Belgian refugees on the harbour at Ostend waiting for a boat to take them to England, 1914.

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#4 Belgian refugees read Flemish messages left by other refugees in a French town, 1915.

Belgian refugees read Flemish messages left by other refugees in a French town, 1915.

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#5 A group portrait of the managers and workers in the Belgian Munition Works in London, which employed Belgian refugees to manufacture grenades and artillery shells for the war effort, September 1918.

A group portrait of the managers and workers in the Belgian Munition Works in London, which employed Belgian refugees to manufacture grenades and artillery shells for the war effort, September 1918.

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#6 Belgian refugees manufacture artillery shells at the Belgian Munition Works in London, September 1918.

Belgian refugees manufacture artillery shells at the Belgian Munition Works in London, September 1918.

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#7 Belgian refugee women use lathes to make ammunition casings at the Belgian Munition Works in London, September 1918.

Belgian refugee women use lathes to make ammunition casings at the Belgian Munition Works in London, September 1918.

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#8 Belgian refugees outside the Belgian Munition Works in London, where they were employed to manufacture explosives for the war effort, September 1918.

Belgian refugees outside the Belgian Munition Works in London, where they were employed to manufacture explosives for the war effort, September 1918.

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#9 Belgian refugees arrive in the Welsh town of Rhyl, 1914.

Belgian refugees arrive in the Welsh town of Rhyl, 1914.

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#10 A group of young refugees in London, 1914.

A group of young refugees in London, 1914.

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#11 Belgian Refugees in London, 1914.

Belgian Refugees in London, 1914.

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#12 Belgian refugees in a Kensington workhouse, July 1914.

Belgian refugees in a Kensington workhouse, July 1914.

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#13 Belgian refugees sleep in a barn in France on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1914.

Belgian refugees sleep in a barn in France on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1914.

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#14 Belgian refugees in London celebrate Independence Day, 1915.

Belgian refugees in London celebrate Independence Day, 1915.

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#15 Belgian refugee soldiers in their camp at Hyde near Manchester, Sept. 1, 1915.

Belgian refugee soldiers in their camp at Hyde near Manchester, Sept. 1, 1915.

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#16 Belgian refugees arrive in Paris, Refugees leaving Gare du Nord, Paris.

Belgian refugees arrive in Paris, Refugees leaving Gare du Nord, Paris.

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#17 In Brussels Airport, the arrival from Congo of Belgian Refugees.

In Brussels Airport, the arrival from Congo of Belgian Refugees.

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#18 Belgian Refugees arrive in Paris by Horse-Drawn Cart, 1914

Belgian Refugees arrive in Paris by Horse-Drawn Cart, 1914

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#19 Refugees fleeing to Brussels for safety in WWI.

Refugees fleeing to Brussels for safety in WWI.

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#20 Belgian refugees arriving in Paris, 1914.

Belgian refugees arriving in Paris, 1914.

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#21 Arrival of Belgian refugees in Paris. 1914.

Arrival of Belgian refugees in Paris. 1914.

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#22 Belgian refugees in Paris, 1914.

Belgian refugees in Paris, 1914.

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#23 The inhabitants of the Belgian countryside fleeing by road. World War I 1914.

The inhabitants of the Belgian countryside fleeing by road. World War I 1914.

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#24 Evacuation of civilians in Belgium via the ports to destinations in Holland. Autumn 1914

Evacuation of civilians in Belgium via the ports to destinations in Holland. Autumn 1914

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#25 Belgian Refugees at Kensington Workhouse, 1914.

Belgian Refugees at Kensington Workhouse, 1914.

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#26 Refugees from the advancing German Army seen in Brussels, 1914.

Refugees from the advancing German Army seen in Brussels, 1914.

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#27 Belgian refugees fleeing along the Antwerp Road using dog carts to pull their belongings. 4th October 1914

Belgian refugees fleeing along the Antwerp Road using dog carts to pull their belongings. 4th October 1914

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#28 Father Merckx seen here with one of the youngest of the 300 Belgian refugees aboard a cross channel ferry bringing them to Great Britain 27th September 1914.

Father Merckx seen here with one of the youngest of the 300 Belgian refugees aboard a cross channel ferry bringing them to Great Britain 27th September 1914.

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#29 Three generations of refugees weary and footsore, they arrive in Brussels with such few belongings. September 19, 1914

Three generations of refugees weary and footsore, they arrive in Brussels with such few belongings. September 19, 1914

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#30 Belgian army armoured car seen here close to Termonde. September 1914

Belgian army armoured car seen here close to Termonde. September 1914

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#31 Refugees scurry through the ruins of the Belgian town of Termonde. September 09, 1914

Refugees scurry through the ruins of the Belgian town of Termonde. September 09, 1914

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#32 Belgian refugees driving bullock wagon fleeing the advancing German army. September 1914

Belgian refugees driving bullock wagon fleeing the advancing German army. September 1914

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#33 Belgian refugees driving bullock wagon fleeing the advancing German army. September 1914

Belgian refugees driving bullock wagon fleeing the advancing German army. September 1914

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#34 Belgian Refugees rusing from Antwerp to Ostend, Holland and England, 1914.

Belgian Refugees rusing from Antwerp to  Ostend, Holland and England, 1914.

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#35 Belgian refugees crowding aboard a train headed for the coast after evacuating the city in front of advancing German troops during World War I.

Belgian refugees crowding aboard a train headed for the coast after evacuating the city in front of advancing German troops during World War I.

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#36 Thousands of Belgian refugees who have sought refuge in Holland during WWI.

Thousands of Belgian refugees who have sought refuge in Holland during WWI.

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#37 Refuges from Alost wait for trains at Quartrecht Station.

Refuges from Alost wait for trains at Quartrecht Station.

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#38 A Belgian refugee who has reached England finds her husband, a Belgian soldier, among the wounded in the British hospital, Cambridge, 1916.

A Belgian refugee who has reached England finds her husband, a Belgian soldier, among the wounded in the British hospital, Cambridge, 1916.

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#39 A poor Belgian family, with half a dozen children were without shelter or food for three days, 1916.

A poor Belgian family, with half a dozen children were without shelter or food for three days, 1916.

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#40 Belgian Refugees leaving the cities for Holland and England, 1916.

Belgian Refugees leaving the cities for Holland and England, 1916.

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#41 Thousands of loaves of bread being hauled by wagons to various townes where Belgian refugees are kept, 1916.

Thousands of loaves of bread being hauled by wagons to various townes where Belgian refugees are kept, 1916.

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#42 A kindly Dutch band entertaining Belgian refugees, 1916.

A kindly Dutch band entertaining Belgian refugees, 1916.

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#43 Belgian Refugees at Ellis Island, 1917.

Belgian Refugees at Ellis Island, 1917.

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#44 Red Cross nurses take babies to a sand bag bomb shelter in Panne, Belgium, during World War I. November 1918.

Red Cross nurses take babies to a sand bag bomb shelter in Panne, Belgium, during World War I. November 1918.

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#45 Belgian refugee family stands outside the abandoned British field hut they moved into after the armistice ended World War I.

Belgian refugee family stands outside the abandoned British field hut they moved into after the armistice ended World War I.

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#46 Belgians fleeing from Termonde, First World War.

Belgians fleeing from Termonde, First World War.

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#47 Brussels Refugees in the streets of Brussels.

Brussels Refugees in the streets of Brussels.

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Written by Aung Budhh

Husband + Father + librarian + Poet + Traveler + Proud Buddhist. I love you with the breath, the smiles and the tears of all my life.

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